Using the body’s own resources – brown fat tissue – scientists of the German Center for Diabetes Research led by Professor Norbert Stefan of University Hospital Tübingen are developing a new approach to treating obesity. In the television series W wie Wissen (K as in Knowledge), the German channel ARD broadcast a short documentary featuring this new approach: In the semidarkness of a windowless room, control monitors display unusual images from inside the body. The brain, heart, kidneys and the skeletal system are reproduced so vividly that you might expect the camera to be inside the organs. The images of positron emission tomography combined with computed tomography (PET/CT) make the brown adipose tissue in the shoulder-neck region visible. Unlike white fat deposits which store calories, the brown fat burns them.
“For a long time it was thought that adult humans only have useless remnants of brown fat in the body,” the endocrinologist Professor Norbert Stefan explained. However, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009 reported that adults, too, can convert calories into heat, as is known in infants. In babies the proportion of brown fat amounts to two to five percent of the body weight, but this proportion rapidly diminishes in the first few years of life. Moreover, this rediscovered “furnace” in the body only runs at low temperatures, which is why it is inactive in many people.
Since PET/CT scans are very stressful for the human organism, the Tübingen radiologists have developed a PET magnetic resonance imaging (PET/MRI) technique to further their research. It is already known that brown fat reacts to specific hormones and enzymes. With L-thyroxine, a hormone used in thyroid treatment, Professor Stefan would like to activate the brown fat in order to also help patients with diabetes to lose their excess weight.
Click here to watch the TV program (in German).
You will find the narration text of the TV documentary here (also in German). .